Why OpenStack Needs Red Hat

There's no mistaking OpenStack's community momentum. In 2013 some of that momentum translated into serious enterprise adoption, with PayPal's CTO, for example, declaring it now runs 20% of its infrastructure on OpenStack, "a number that will only increase." Even "no software" Salesforce may be getting into the OpenStack game.

Yet there are real indications that OpenStack is more smoke than fire. Former OpenStack contributor Andrew Clay Shafer denigrates OpenStack as "an n-dimensional prisoners dilemma masquerading as a technical ----show," calling out the chaos that community can create. Others point to its "backbreaking" upgrade process, requiring a "wipe out and reinstall" of previous OpenStack systems, as a key blocker to its progress.

So is 2014 the year of boom or bust for OpenStack?

Cracks In The OpenStack Foundation?

Among other things, OpenStack is a labor union. It's a project for enthusiastic contributors and for defensive IT vendors, namely, those vendors who feel threatened by Amazon Web Services (AWS). (And for good reason.) The labor union provides protection to them and confidence that they will survive and succeed.

This "labor union" is generating a great number of jobs, as data from Indeed.com shows:

But OpenStack has issues.

For one thing, OpenStack is punished by undisciplined product governance. The best open-source projects, like Linux, have a strong, small leadership team that knows the value of saying "No." But OpenStack tends to say "Yes" to every new feature, not ensuring consistency in the product and not ensuring that the hard and boring problems get solved. This may stem from a lack of coherent vision as to what OpenStack is, and isn't, according to Gartner.

But part of this may also derive from the possibility that OpenStack is driven by developers who do it for the fun of development and not with the ultimate cloud user/operator in mind. This is a problem inherent to many open-source projects, which privilege contributors over users. That sort of a mindset isn't productive or sustainable.

Cloud infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) is a new industry. To win, you must innovate. Only AWS is really innovating in IaaS today. Everyone else, including OpenStack, is copying to try to catch up. Yes, there are some small innovative projects and companies worth mentioning, like Docker and CoreOS.

But in the OpenStack project, what’s truly innovative? Or unique?

Red Hat To The Rescue

Could OpenStack fail? Yes. Look at how IBM invested in OS/2 to fight Windows ... and failed. Or OpenOffice, which tried desperately to beat Microsoft Word ... and failed. Serious resources or community aren't always enough to beat an innovative, entrenched competitor.

But Red Hat, oddly, just might be.

OpenStack is unlikely to win in public clouds. It has better potential in hybrid clouds, yet lacks compatibility with leading public clouds like AWS, Azure and Google Compute Engine. It has even more likelihood of winning with the largest SaaS vendors like PayPal and Salesforce as they build their own clouds using OpenStack as the toolkit from which they pick components.

But it's enterprise IT where OpenStack may shine the brightest, and here Red Hat stands to win big.

OpenStack needs a dominant vendor, someone to guide and control development. In open source, control comes from code. The more code one contributes, the more influence they exert. Though OpenStack was started by Rackspace, today Red Hat dominates contributions. The reason is clear: Red Hat needs OpenStack to complement its full-stack strategy against Microsoft and VMware in the enterprise.

Open source tends to be winner-take-all. In enterprise Linux, the winner (Red Hat) took all. In Android, the winner (Samsung) took all. Foundation-based open-source projects with multiple downstream product vendors almost always end up as winner-take-all scenarios. No, this hasn't yet happened in Hadoop, but that's the exception, not the rule. 

OpenStack: Red Hat's Game To Lose

At present, the only plausible OpenStack winner is Red Hat, leveraging OpenStack to extend its momentum in the enterprise. That's good news for Red Hat, obviously, but also for OpenStack. OpenStack's strength is community. Its weakness is leadership. With Red Hat providing that leadership, OpenStack's community momentum may finally come good.